President Barack Obama – in office for just 20 days -- held his first prime time news conference on Monday evening. Regular programming was pre-empted on the television networks. How did he do? Media commentator Paul Janensch gives us his assessment.
As President Obama said of his economic stimulus package, he wasn’t perfect. But he showed that he can stay cool and calm in the face of direct and sometimes tough questioning from the White House press corps. The news conference lasted exactly one hour. Obama began with an eight-minute statement pitching his recovery plan and then took 13 questions. He followed the traditional format – starting with the major news services, then calling on reporters from the TV networks, major newspapers and other outlets. The reporters behaved themselves. There was no showing off. Most of the questions were to the point. Some were skeptical. Did he risk losing credibility by using “dire language” to describe the economy? What “went wrong” with his efforts at bi-partisanship?
His answers were fluent but sometimes too long and complicated. There were few “uhhs” and “you knows.” He broke with tradition near the end by taking a question from a writer for the Huffington Post, an online publication. That was appropriate, considering that Obama and his advisors realize the Internet is the major provider of news for many Americans. President John F. Kennedy started the televised news conference in 1961 and was a master at it. So was Ronald Reagan. George W. Bush seemed uncomfortable in news conferences and held few of them in prime time. In fact, he held few news conferences at any time.
Obama has made himself accessible to the mainstream media in other ways. He sat down with anchors of all the networks, including the Fox News Channel. He met with both conservative and liberal pundits. A presidential news conferences is risky for a president, especially when it’s put on in prime time and watched by millions of people. The chief executive never knows for sure what will come up. For example on Monday evening, a Fox News reporter asked about Vice President Joe Biden’s statement that “there’s still a 30 percent chance we’re going to get it wrong.” Obama’s response was, “You know, I don’t remember exactly what he was referring to, not surprisingly.” Then he went on to tell the reporter “what Joe was suggesting.” The president cracked a smile. Now that’s staying cool and calm.
Media commentator Paul Janensch is a former newspaper editor who teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.